case law update

Fourth Circuit Finds Repeated Tasering of Mentally Ill Man Excessive Force

The Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed a district court decision granting officers qualified immunity after Tasering Ronald H. Armstrong five times. Mr. Armstrong died of suffocation.

Ronald H. Armstrong suffered from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. After being off his medication for five days and exhibiting bizarre behavior, his sister Jinia Armstrong Lopez convinced him to go to the regional hospital with her on April 23, 2011.

During the course of a medical evaluation, he eloped from the hospital. Based on Ms. Lopez’s account of Mr. Armstrong’s recent behavior and his flight from the hospital, the examining doctor issued involuntary commitment papers to compel Mr. Armstrong’s return. At that time, the doctor designated Mr. Armstrong a danger to himself, but did not designate him a danger to others.

The local police were called as soon as Mr. Armstrong left the hospital, including Officer Gatling, Sergeant Sheppard and Lieutenant McDonald. When the officers first spotted Mr. Armstrong, he was wandering across an active roadway. After Officer Gatling convinced Mr. Armstrong to withdraw, Mr. Armstrong proceeded to eat grass and dandelions, chew on a gauze-like substance, and put cigarettes out on his tongue.

The officers obtained a finalized commitment order from the hospital and approached Mr. Armstrong, who wrapped himself around a stop sign. Attempting to pry him from the sign, the officers could not get Mr. Armstrong to budge, even with his sister present.  Just thirty seconds after the officers told Mr. Armstrong about the order, Lieutenant McDonald told Officer Gatling to prepare the Taser.

Officer Gatling provided a warning to Mr. Armstrong, without effect, and subsequently deployed his Taser. Officer Gatling, however, deployed his Taser five separate times over a period of approximately two minutes. The officers then removed Mr. Armstrong from the stop sign and laid him facedown on the ground.

Mr. Armstrong complained he was being choked, but because no officer was choking him they proceeded to handcuff him. Shortly after, Mr. Armstrong stopped moving completely. Sergeant Sheppard and Lieutenant McDonald administered CPR, and arranged for EMS to bring Mr. Armstrong to the Emergency Department. Attempts to resurrect Mr. Armstrong failed.

Mr. Armstrong’s estate filed a complaint in the Superior Court of Moore County, NC against each police officer involved pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that the officers used excessive force in violation of Mr. Armstrong’s Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights.  The officers then removed the case to the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina. The district court granted summary judgment for the officers, stating that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity. Mr. Armstrong’s estate then appealed the district court decision.

The Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reviewed the district court’s grant of summary judgment de novo. As noted by the court, summary judgment is appropriate if there are no genuine issues of material fact, while interpreting the evidence and any reasonable inferences drawn therefrom in the light most favorable to Mr. Armstrong’s estate, and the officers are entitled judgment as a matter of law.

The court of appeals first concluded that Mr. Armstrong’s estate established the violation of a constitutional right, the use of excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment.  The court of appeals made this determination by using the Fourth Amendment’s “objective reasonableness” analysis in Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 388 (1989). First, the court of appeals stated that no crime was alleged by the officers nor did they have probable cause to effectuate an arrest. Rather, the officers were interested in seizing Mr. Armstrong to prevent self-inflicted harm. Second, the Taser was deployed at a time when Mr. Armstrong was seated and outnumbered by officers, posing little risk to third parties after he departed from the busy roadway. Third, while Mr. Armstrong’s noncompliance with lawful orders justified some use of force, the circumstances demonstrated little risk posed by the resistance – Mr. Armstrong was stationary, non-violent, and surround by people willing to assist.

The officers contended that the use of the Taser was acceptable because Mr. Armstrong was unrestrained and actively resisting. The court of appeals disagreed, holding, “[T]asers are proportional force only when deployed in response to a situation in which a reasonable officer would perceive some immediate danger.”  Here, Officer Gatling deployed his Taser on Mr. Armstrong, a mentally ill man being seized for his own protection while seated on the ground after he failed to submit to a lawful seizure for only thirty seconds.

Despite finding that Mr. Armstrong’s estate established the violation of a constitutional right, the court of appeals concluded that the constitutional right was not clearly established at the time of the alleged offense. That is, Mr. Armstrong’s right not to be Tased while offering stationary and non-violent resistance to seizure was not clearly established on April 23, 2011. However, the court noted that the officers were “treading close to the constitutional line,” as it previously held that Tasing suspects after being secured as well as punching or pepper spraying suspects in response to minimal, non-violent resistance constituted excessive force.

The court of appeals affirmed the district court decision granting the officers qualified immunity. Still, the court of appeals stated, “we intend this opinion to clarify when [T]aser use amounts to excessive force in, at least, some circumstances ... It, therefore, may only be deployed when a police officer is confronted with an exigency that creates an immediate safety risk and that is reasonably likely to be cured by using the [T]aser.”

Read the full case: Estate of Armstrong v. The Village of Pinehurst



This case law update was written by Michael J. Sgarlat, associate attorney, Shaw Bransford & Roth, PC.

For thirty years, Shaw Bransford & Roth P.C. has provided superior representation on a wide range of federal employment law issues, from representing federal employees nationwide in administrative investigations, disciplinary and performance actions, and Bivens lawsuits, to handling security clearance adjudications and employment discrimination cases.

Posted in Case Law Update

Tags: case law update, michael j sgarlat


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